WASHINGTON -- Republican lawmakers asserted yesterday that the administration's $257.8 billion proposed 1996 defense budget would leave the military services underfinanced, overworked and armed with outdated weapons.
Noting that Pentagon spending would be $10 billion less next year than this year, Rep. Floyd D. Spence, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the House National Security Committee, said:
"I have a hard time believing that an outlay reduction of this magnitude is fully consistent with maintenance of a capable, ready force, particularly after a decade of declining defense budgets."
Pro-defense Republicans are intent on ending the defense cuts, if not increasing Pentagon spending. They want to reorder Pentagon priorities by reducing international peacekeeping operations, investing more in new weapons, emphasizing missile defense and cutting nondefense spending -- such as industrial, medical and environmental programs.
The administration insists its budget is adequate for its central mission of defending the nation and being able to fight two regional conflicts almost simultaneously.
"There has not been this much controversy over the adequacy of the administration's defense plan since the late 1970s," Mr. Spence said.
In the 1970s, the Carter administration was blamed for allowing the military forces to become "hollow" -- the buzzword for underfinanced, undermanned and demoralized.
The House hearing yesterday was the first airing on Capitol Hill of the administration's new defense budget, sent to Congress Monday.
The budget would authorize the Pentagon to spend 5.3 percent less in fiscal 1996 than this year. This is the 10th consecutive annual decline since defense spending peaked in 1985 during the Reagan-era defense buildup.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry, armed with charts and graphs and with Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seated beside him, tried to convince skeptical Republican members of the committee that "this budget preserves our national security."
"It funds readiness as its highest priority, and it will adequately maintain high readiness," Mr. Perry said. "It puts people first, not just through readiness but through quality-of-life programs. It supports what I believe is the right force structure and the right strategy."
Under the Clinton defense plan, the Pentagon's budget will decline by an inflation-adjusted 5.3 percent next year and by a further 4.1 percent in fiscal 1997. It will then hold steady for the next two years, before starting to increase -- by little more than 1 percent -- in 2000.
Said Mr. Spence: "I believe that the hemorrhaging must be stopped earlier than the next century.
Defense spending this year represents 3.8 percent of the gross domestic product -- the total value of the nation's output and services); it will fall to a projected 2.9 percent in 2000. That would be less than half the 6.5 percent of GDP it represented in 1985, at the height of the Reagan administration's buildup.
The Army last fall acknowledged that three of its 12 divisions were not combat-ready, and the other services all have reported training and maintenance cutbacks.
They blamed their below-par military readiness on the diversion of money to pay for unexpected overseas operations in Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Cuba and the Persian Gulf, where Washington responded to an Iraqi military buildup on the Kuwaiti border.
The Pentagon is seeking an extra $2.6 billion for fiscal 1995 to cover the costs of these operations. Mr. Perry warned the committee yesterday that if more money was diverted for unbudgeted operations this year, readiness could again be eroded.
To avoid future unexpected missions draining money from ordinary military operations, the administration suggested creating a contingency fund for emergencies.
Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, asked: "Why does it have to be a blanket, black-hole pot of money that could in fact be used for operations that perhaps the Congress would not fully agree should be totally funded?"
Replied John Hamre, the Pentagon's chief financial officer: "We are not seeking a slush fund. We're not seeking a blank check. . . . It is only designed to protect those U.S. forces that are at home that would otherwise have to pay the bill with reduced readiness if we were involved in a contingency."
In trying to keep the forces well-trained, equipped and in improved living conditions, the administration has had to cut spending for modernizing of weapons.
But the 71 percent inflation-adjusted decline in spending on new weapons over the past 10 years is scheduled to bottom out this year. Next year, the administration will begin to increase spending on modernizing weapons. Such spending will rise by an estimated 47 percent over the subsequent five years.
Suggesting that the United States would soon order fewer fighter aircraft a year than even traditionally neutral Switzerland, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, told Mr. Perry: "You say you have plans for modernization [of weapons], but certainly this budget speaks much more loudly than plans. It shows that in fact you're putting off the modernization."
Mr. Perry appealed to the Republicans for "a bipartisan spirit" in the defense debate, but his critics appeared unswayed.
"The bottom line is that no matter how much in internal savings and efficiencies we manage to come up with, I believe that the additional discretionary budget resources will be required to stabilize our defense posture in the years ahead," Mr. Spence said.
As a further boost to national security, Rep. Herbert H. Bateman, a Virginia Republican, called for the renegotiation or cancellation of the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty to allow the United States "to get on with the most efficient and cost-effective [anti]-ballistic missile system that we can develop."
The Clinton budget proposes to spend $3 billion in each of the next two years to develop anti-missile systems to protect troops in battle, but only $400 million yearly for the development of a national system for the U.S. mainland.
The Republicans want to revive the Reagan-era "star wars" program. But Mr. Perry acknowledged yesterday that none of the programs under consideration by the administration was capable of countering a large-scale attack.